Historian Rick Bell leads the Speakeasy Tours at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.
Historian Rick Bell leads the Speakeasy Tours at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.

When the Shapira family opened the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville in November of 2013, they had a staff of 13 and were unsure what to expect. They knew they had a one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art interactive tour to add to the bourbon culture in Louisville, and they were happy to be the first distillery to return to Whiskey Row along Main Street.

Now, a year later, more than 70,000 people have come through their doors, they’ve had to expand their weekend hours, and the staff is 25 strong.

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience has had more than 70,000 visitors in the last year.
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience has had more than 70,000 visitors in the last year.

The first year has definitely been a surprise,” says general manager Jeffrey W. Crowe. “And we hope the second year we do even better. The (Shapira) family has had such a foresight of what they want; I’m sure there are things planned that even we don’t know about.”

One recent step they took was to add a half-hour Speakeasy Tour on Fridays and Saturdays as spillover from the overcrowded regular tours. Hosted by historian Rick Bell in the basement’s event space, the tour includes bourbon samples and a history lesson on Prohibition and the emergence of speakeasies at the time. The fully functioning bar and room is decorated for the occasion, complete with secret doors and a password you need to give upon entering.

We added the Speakeasy Tour to help with the overflow, but now the overflow is overflowing,” says Crowe about the popularity of the tours.

The Shapira family started the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Ky., in 1934, and it remains family-run today. Evan Williams is a product of Heaven Hill.

Crowe says the most surprising aspect throughout the past year has been the demographic of the people on the tours. They figured they’d reach 45- to 65-year-olds, but it’s actually been much younger. “It’s a whole new generation of bourbon lovers,” he says. “Bourbon is no longer your grandpa’s drink — it’s now your fraternity brother’s drink, your golf buddy’s drink, your girlfriend’s drink.”

The five Shapira brothers started Heaven Hill in 1934.
The five Shapira brothers started Heaven Hill in 1934.

As other distilleries move into the area — Old Forester, Angel’s Envy and Michter’s are all planning new facilities — Crowe says the Shapiras see it as a positive thing. “I think it’s going to be an explosion. I see the bourbon industry only continuing to skyrocket. And I think we’ll continue to grow as well. We have our story to tell, and they have their stories — and together we will all come together to tell the story of Kentucky bourbon.”

Last month, the Evan Williams Experience celebrated their one-year anniversary with special events and an official dedication of a historical marker that was unveiled by Mayor Greg Fischer and the Shapira family.

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is an incredible pioneer in Louisville’s ever-expanding bourbon and spirits tourism presence,” Fischer said. “Thanks to Heaven Hill for blazing a trail and giving so many visitors a tremendous experience with our city’s native spirit, history and heritage.”

General Manager Jeffrey W. Crowe with the photos of the five Shapira brothers.
General Manager Jeffrey W. Crowe with the photos of the five Shapira brothers.

As for 2015, Crowe says they have some interesting plans in place to up the ante. They’ll be making new products on site (a rye whiskey and wheated whiskey have been mentioned) and offering bourbons that will only be available in the retail store. They also plan on updating the third-floor event space and fine tuning the tours.

First up, however, is to celebrate Repeal Day on Friday, Dec. 5, in true speakeasy style. Prohibition was devastating for Kentucky’s economy; 8,000 jobs were lost in one day when it began in 1920. A long 13 years later, Prohibition ended with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933.

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience will be hosting activities in the basement bar from 5-9 p.m. in conjunction with the First Friday Trolley Hop. After gaining access with the correct password, there’ll be appetizers, bourbon tastings, door prizes, costume contests and an assortment of beverages and specialty Prohibition cocktails at a cash bar.

The Repeal Day activities are free, and you can get a discounted full tour for $9 a person that night. For more information, check out evanwilliamsbourbonexperience.com.

Evan Williams Facts:

  • Evan Williams is the second-best selling bourbon in the world (Jim Beam is the first)
  • You must know the password to enter the speakeasy door.
    You must know the password to enter the speakeasy door.

    Bourbon might have been birthed by Kentucky farmer-distillers, but the bourbon industry came of age in Louisville along the banks of the Ohio River. It was there that Evan Williams, Kentucky’s first commercial distiller, established his business across the street from what is now the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. As his distillery became an important business in Louisville, residents began referring to the street running between the distillery and the river as “William’s Row.”

  • Not only was he Kentucky’s first commercial distiller, but Evan Williams also was twice elected Louisville’s Town Trustee and appointed Wharfmaster. In that time, Wharfmaster was the toll collector, traffic manager, peacekeeper and general boss of the waterfront. At the turn of the 19th century, Williams kept the Louisville Town Trustees on track and political tempers in check by bringing a jug of his whiskey to meetings. 
  • Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc. has had a presence on Whiskey Row since 1945, when the Shapira family purchased 528 W. Main St. to use for the family business. The building is now home to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.
  • Heaven Hill is America’s largest independent family-owned and operated producer and marketer of distilled spirits.
  • Heaven Hill is America’s sixth-largest supplier of distilled spirits.
  • Heaven Hill is the second largest holder of aging bourbon whiskey in the world, with more than 1 million barrels. This accounts for nearly 17 percent of the world’s future supply.
  • Heaven Hill has filled more than 6.5 million barrels of Kentucky bourbon since it was founded after the repeal of Prohibition.
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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."